While University of North Georgia students worked to build part of a walking trail that will eventually become part of a system connecting Alabama to New York, it was the relationships formed that created a lasting connection.
Rebekah Bennett and Sebastian Godinez, both second-year UNG students from Gainesville, were among the 18 students who helped build the part of the Chattanooga Connector Trail from March 10-13. The Chattanooga Connector Trail cuts across Northwest Georgia, connecting Chattanooga with Cloudland Canyon State Park in Dade County. Eventually it will be part of a larger system of trails — called the Great Eastern Trail —connecting the Northeast to the Gulf Coast.
It will be similar to the Appalachian Trail, Bennett said.
“It’s part of a trail that will eventually (span much of the eastern part of the country),” Godinez said. “It was just a piece of that. But at the end of the day, we can reflect back and say ‘I was a part of that.’”
During the daytime, students worked from with one major unscheduled interruption. An unexpected evening snowfall March 11 froze the ground, canceling the work March 12.
“We worked on it for four hours (March 11), but they said we’d only gotten like an eighth of a mile done,” Bennett said. “It felt like we’d done so much, but it wasn’t so much.”
However, their group effort made a dent in the process.
“It would have taken so much longer for just the two people who worked there to get that much done,” Bennett said.
Students cut the trail, which was marked with flags, by digging until the dirt changed color. They then moved rocks and dug out roots, using pick axes and McLeods, a two-sided blade on a long, wooden-handle.
Next, students ensured the trail tilted for water drainage.
The student volunteers then smoothed the trail before placing leaves around the edges to keep hikers on the path.
“I didn’t realize it, but there are special ways you have to make the trail to make it last a little bit longer and won’t harm the area it’s in,” said Bennett, a 19-year-old nursing student.
Once work was done for the day, the UNG students spent the evenings bonding in a more social setting.
During the stay in cabins in Cloudland Canyon State Park in Trenton in the northwest corner of the state, students played games and learned about leadership.
“We got to know each other and how we got to where we were at at that moment,” Godinez said. “The bonding that we had, we really got close.”
The 21-year-old nursing student said bringing together students from different UNG campuses built unity. He hopes the university continues to have similar projects to bring students together.
Getting to know the other students and being productive was Bennett’s favorite part.
“And Lula Lake, seeing Lula Lake was so beautiful,” she said.
The project was supported by a $5,000 Presidential Innovation Award, part of the Presidential Initiative Awards program instituted by UNG President Bonita C. Jacobs in 2013.
“We wanted to provide a dynamic out-of-classroom service learning experience for UNG students from any campus,” Lindsay Bailey, director of student involvement for UNG’s Oconee Campus, said in a press release. “Our goal was to provide a civic engagement focused experience that will have a profound and positive impact on their personal development as students and citizens.”
Mallory Rodriguez, director of student life and leadership programs at UNG, helped organize the trip.
“We wanted students to walk away with why this trail is important,” she said. “And how do you build sustainable trails with low impact for the environment?”
Rodriguez said the UNG trip went better than expected.
“It was great to get them connected to a social issue,” she said. “They also bonded and learned what it meant to be a UNG Nighthawk and really come together and unite through this process.”